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Monday, July 31, 2017

Fai Da Te: The Emergence of Do-It-Yourself Volunteerism in Rome

The commercial side of fai da te (do it yourself)
A few months ago, legendary singer-songwriter Francesco De Gregori picked up a broom and began sweeping via Settembrini in the quartiere of Prati, near the Vatican.  No, it doesn't happen often. Rome's celebrities are not often found cleaning up this famously filthy city.  But De Gregori's afternoon on the sidewalks, in the gutters, and among the garbage cans of the Eternal City (at  least the garbage is eternal) was a sign that Rome's citizens had turned a corner, and one of no small significance.

Rome--and no doubt most if not all Italian cities--has no tradition of volunteerism.  Romans believe that the high taxes they pay should be enough for the city to provide essential public services and, furthermore, that it would be wrong for citizens to break that contract with the public sphere by taking on duties that were properly in the government sphere.  It is not that Romans are tolerant of dirt.  Indeed, home interiors are generally spotless; marble and wood floors glisten(rugs harbor dirt and dust), and the stairways of apartment houses are routinely swept and washed.  Outside is another matter.

One city government after another--left, center, and now right/populist, under Mayor Virginia Raggi--has promised--and failed--to clean the streets, repair the seriously pot-holed asphalt and stone streets, pick up the garbage, and mow the grass in the parks.

The good news is that people are beginning to take these matters into their own hands, here and there, bit by bit.  Volunteerism remains inchoate, but there are signs of it.  The phrase of the moment is "fai da te": Do it yourself.  Indeed, on May 10 the newspaper La Repubblica referred to Rome as "la capitale del fai-da-te" (the capital of do-it-yourself).  Hard to believe.

A homeowner doing some hard work on via Olbia
We first noticed the signs of change three years ago, while living on via Olbia (it runs off via Gallia) in the San Giovanni neighborhood.  There, on a street where all the villini (small houses) are protected by stone walls and iron gates, a local resident was sweeping the sidewalk.  Bravo!

Cleaning up after the dog in Piazza Re di Roma

About the same time, we noticed a man picking up after his dog in Piazza Re di Roma. Another first!

Some hope here

And, then, this time in Monteverdi Vecchio, an effort to grow some flowers around the trunk of a dead tree.

Community involvement--a form of volunteerism

In Villa Sciara, also in Monteverdi Vecchio, a handwritten sign about keeping the park clean for school children.

Story in La Repubblica about people in Monteverde cleaning the streets, "fai da te"

Those were signs, but what's happening today is on another scale altogether.  Across Rome, public-spirited citizens have come together in associations to accomplish tasks left undone by the city government.  One of them, named Retake Roma, reportedly has 42,000 followers and, using the internet, organizes 20 events each week in the capital, cleaning the streets and parks.  Organized a few months ago, "Tappami" fills the potholes in the streets.  Another association, working with the city government, conducts "surveillance" activities in the parks, perhaps keeping on eye on comportment while keeping track of areas that need repair or cleaning.  And then there's an organization, "AnonimiAttivisiti" (anonymous activists) that brazenly mark out bicycling lanes where they didn't before exist.  On via Muggia in Prati, the portiere (doorman, super) of one of the buildings managed to get permission from the city government to become an authorized gardener (cost: 100 Euro) and then raise money to buy equipment (700 Euro) from area residents, all so that he could cut the grass once a week.  According to La Repubblica, there are now 94 authorized--voluntary-- gardeners in Rome. 

Finally, in Salario (where we lived for a time in the spring), Trieste (just to the north) and other areas of the city, young men, recently-arrived immigrants of African origin, are sweeping the quartiere's streets.  Each sweeper--and there are perhaps a half dozen within a 12-block area--usually has one or two boxes, often marked with the words "pulisco il tuo quartiere" (I'm cleaning your neighborhood) and, on top of the box, a cup for a "mancia" (a tip).  On the surface, it works; the streets are cleaner, and the guys are making a few bucks.  Not exactly "fai-da-te" (the "doing" is being done by someone else) but a new, and welcome contribution to the city's new "look" and "feel."


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